Henry Wise Wood

Henry Wise Wood

BORN: near Monroe City, Missouri • 31 May 1860

DIED: Calgary, Alberta • 10 June 1941

In every generation since Confederation, the vast Canadian prairie has produced a political person¬ ality who defined the times. Louis Riel and Tommy Douglas, for example, were each larger-than-life characters who dominated their respective eras.

When impact rather than myth is measured, however, the most influential of them all was a modest, oft- forgotten farmer who did not arrive in Canada until his forties.Henry Wise Wood was already a successful cattle rancher when he came to Canada in 1904 from Missouri.

He had worked his parents’ land for several years, but as the head of a growing family he wanted to earn his own prosperity and security. The Alberta prairie was the “Last Best West” in North America, and Wood’s was the final generation to break new ground and join in Canada’s wheat boom.

Wood joined the United Farmers of Alberta when it was founded in 1909. He had observed with interest the power that American populist organizations had exerted on behalf of farmers, and he was suspicious of the influence that banking and manufacturing inter¬ ests wielded in the Alberta government. In 1915 the mature, tall, almost completely bald farmer who had just become a British subject was elected vice-president of the UFA. A year later he was president.

The new leader soon learned that though crops were plentiful and demand was high, many Alberta farmers still struggled to make a living. This incongruity squared perfectly with Wood’s long-held belief that farmers were systematically exploited by other social groups.

In search of a general approach to this problem, Wood read widely, trying to develop a theory of social relations that might help farmers get their due. He was attracted by the notions of class in the writings of Marx, but his progressive Christian upbringing and commitment to democratic government made him uncomfortable with Marx’s class conflict solution.

As an alternative, he gradually developed a model of political decision-making he called “group government,” in which groups organized by economic interest would meet and govern in the interests of all. Conflict, in his scheme, was to be replaced by cooperation.Farmers found group government a compelling concept and the UFA president a compelling leader.

Wood’s personal reputation grew to the point where he was widely viewed as the most powerful man in Alberta, and pressure mounted for him to lead the UFA into electoral politics. In 1919 the UFA did jump into politics, with reform of the system as its stated goal. In a province dominated by agriculture, the movement was an immediate success at the polls.

In 1921 the UFA won a majority victory, and it remained in power until 1935. Wood declined an invitation to head the government; he was content, it seems, to be the philosophical leader of the move¬ ment and to maintain his position outside the political arena.

He also remained in the background when the Progressives, a loose coalition of farmers mainly from Alberta and Ontario, won sixty-five seats in the federal election of 1921. Wood helped shape the platform for the new party and directed his well-organized UFA locals to support it.When it finished second behind Mackenzie’s King’s Liberal Party, the outlook seemed bright for the reformers both in Ottawa and in Alberta.

But radical change was not to be. The Progressives heeded Wood’s advice and refused to become the official Opposition; by the next election, the party was fatally split by King’s wooing of the moderates. It disappeared completely within a few years.

Back in Alberta, the UFA, once in power, made little effort to change the way the political system worked. “Group government” was never seriously considered, and soon the UFA appeared almost indistinguishable from the Liberals or the Tories.

Wood remained in charge of the farmers’ movement and turned his attention to the major postwar concern of Alberta grain growers in the 1920s: the marketing of wheat. When efforts to get both the federal and the provincial governments to regulate sales failed, Wood helped create the Alberta Wheat Pool—a farmer-owned cooperative that kept the sale of the crop in the hands of producers.

By the time he retired from the UFA in 1931, he was, according to his biographer, the “uncrowned king of Alberta.” The description was an apt one. Wood single- handedly established the farmers’ movement as a dominant force in prairie politics for twenty years.

More important, he changed the rules of Canadian politics for good. Though his group government idea—a rare, made-in-Canada political invention—never got off the ground, he helped smash the traditional parties’ hold on power in the West.

In Alberta, and also in Ottawa, a rich tradition of third- party protest had been established. No longer could the central Canada—based parties take the West for granted. Social Credit, the CCF, the NDP, and the Reform Party all inherited the tradition Wood began, and provincial and federal politics would never be the same.